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Prep volleyball: Cook County three-peats in Section 7A

Clint Austin / Hannah Goggleye (8) of Greenway blocks the ball against North Branch during the Section 7AA championship matche at Denfeld High School on Saturday.

Deadlocked 12-12 in the decisive fifth game of the Section 7A volleyball final Saturday night at Duluth Denfeld, Cook County reached for the reset button.

Carlton’s Allysan Hoeffling had just blocked Vikings star Meredith Sutton, and the next few minutes would decide the section’s state-tournament representative.

“We came together, took a deep breath, regrouped and were like, ‘We got this,’ ” Sutton said.

Indeed, they did.

Sutton’s 39th kill of the night punctuated a back-and-forth thriller between Cook County and Carlton, with the Vikings rebounding from a near-disastrous Game 4 to win 25-23, 15-25, 25-21, 22-25, 15-13.

Cook County (22-5) looked ready to turn the fourth game into a prolonged coronation after sprinting in front 12-4. But the Bulldogs (24-6) responded by reeling off an improbable 9-0 run, and Abby Mickle finished the comeback with one of her 21 kills to force one more go-round between two clubs that have combined to capture every 7A crown since 2013.

The Vikings regained their composure just in time.

“These girls don’t get rattled,” Cook County coach Pam Taylor said. “They’ve been like that all year long.”

Having a security blanket like Sutton has a way of calming the nerves.

The Minnesota Duluth-bound senior, playing in front of Bulldogs coach Jim Boos, hits about as hard as any prep player possibly can. The oddity Saturday was that Carlton’s block was formidable throughout. A player like Sutton, though, is going to find openings eventually. Or she’ll make her own.

At one point during the second game, Hoeffling met Sutton at the net and attempted to at least obstruct her attack. Sutton’s power won out, and Hoeffling flashed a wide grin toward the Carlton bench while gasping, “I tried!”

“We blocked her a few times,” Bulldogs coach Barb Soukkala said. “You get your hands in front of her, but that girl is tough.”

The same could be said for Mickle, who plays much bigger than the 5-7 she’s listed at.

Alaina Bennett chipped in 10 kills for Carlton and Taylor Nelson had nine. Hoeffling ended with five blocks.

Raina Ryden totaled 43 set assists for the three-time defending section champion Vikings.

Taylor has guided Cook County for 35 years now. Before 2015, she never had brought a team to state. Suddenly, she’s on a three-year streak.

What’s her secret?

“No. 1 is Meredith. No. 2 is Raina,” Taylor started, before going through a handful of player names. “We’ve got some good girls that are committed, and they’re committed year-round, not just during the season.”

The Vikings will find out this morning who they play in the Class A quarterfinals Thursday at Xcel Energy Center.

Cook County def. Carlton 25-23, 15-25, 25-21, 22-25, 15-13 — CC: Abby Prom 18SA; Raina Ryden 43SA; Meredith Sutton 39K; Reilly Wahlers 7K. Carlton: Taylor Nelson 9K; Abby Mickle 21K; Alaina Bennett 10K, 3B, 2AS; Allysan Hoeffling 7K, 5B.SECTION 7AA

North Branch 3, Greenway 0

Despite the Vikings’ gaudy record and state ranking, Raiders coach Rhaya Tomberlin-Anderson was full of confidence entering Saturday’s first section final at Denfeld. It’s no secret that North Branch looks to funnel its attack toward 5-foot-10 outside hitter Cianna Selbitschka, so Greenway game-planned accordingly.

Planning a defense for Selbitschka, though, is much easier than performing one.

“It felt like we were late, like we couldn’t think ahead,” Tomberlin-Anderson said following her team’s 25-16, 25-19, 25-18 defeat, in which the Raiders never led. “Defensively, we didn’t execute what we watched on video and what we saw the other night.”

Just a sophomore but already a UMD commit, Selbitschka had her way up front, using her athleticism to record 21 kills and send the Vikings (27-3) to Xcel. She’s up to 426 kills for the fall.

North Branch, ranked fourth in Class AA, was on the attack all evening. That’s the Vikings’ MO, according to coach Mike Selbitschka, Cianna’s father. Keep the opponent guessing.

“Our success stems from that consistent pressure we put on teams,” he said from the Denfeld lobby amid constant camera clicks.

Greenway (25-7) wasn’t overwhelmed, but every time the Raiders strung together mini-runs of two or three points, the Vikings responded with four- or five-point spurts. Do the math, and it doesn’t turn out in Greenway’s favor. The Raiders fell behind 12-3 in the opening game before fighting back to 16-14, but North Branch returned its foot to the gas pedal.

Again in the third game, Greenway overcame a slow start to forge a 12-8 score, and again the Vikings rode a 5-0 burst to a commanding cushion.

Claire Vekich led Greenway with 13 kills.

North Branch def. Greenway 25-16, 25-19, 25-18 — NB: Cianna Selbitschka 21K, 20D; Lydia Langevin 12K; Haley Hadrava 43SA; Sophie Linder 18D; Katelyn Berg 14D. G: Claire Vekich 13K, 6D; Drew Faust 8K, 13D; Mikhara Anderson 14SA, 14D; Erin Gustason 11SA, 8D.